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Houston community, teachers not happy after first year of state supervision of schools


(HOUSTON) — Many states are adopting a drastic approach to address what they judge to be under-performing schools. They’re assuming control of how the schools are run, including appointing new administrators.

Texas did that this school year with the Houston Independent School District’s (HISD), when the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the Lone Star State, disbanded the elected school board and appointed a new superintendent, Mike Miles. He’s been tasked with improving standardized test scores, particularly in math and reading, and especially in the wake of the pandemic, when remote learning saw those scores decline. The state also instituted new systems for evaluating the performance of educators and campus leaders.

Now that HISD is near the end of its first full year under state control, many teachers and community members say despite good intentions, it’s not working.

“It’s never been like this. It’s never felt so much like you’re being strangled,” HISD teacher Maria Benzon said. “I want everybody to love learning for the sake of learning. And it has become sadly a space of we are learning so we can pass the standardized tests.”

In recent years, 25 states, including Texas, have taken over school districts due to poor academic performance or fiscal mismanagement. Miles made one of the most significant changes by choosing 28 Texas schools and placing them under what he calls the New Education System, or NES model.

Among the changes Miles made was deciding that those schools no longer needed librarians. Cheryl Hensley is a librarian whose position was eliminated as part of those changes.

“My mission in life, I’m a librarian,” Hensley told ABC News. “I’m making sure that these kids love it too. I want to make sure that they go find something they want to read and find something that they love to read.”

She called the reality that kids no longer have a librarian “extremely heartbreaking.”

Miles also had officials and administrators monitor teachers’ lessons to ensure they are following the district’s course materials. What those monitors observe plays a key role in ensuring educators’ job security.

Some HISD teachers and principals have told ABC News that they have already started to receive termination notices before the end of the school year.

Benzon said that when she pulled two students to the back of the class to help them individually, she was told she shouldn’t be giving any students one-on-one instruction.

HISD addressed that incident in a statement to ABC News “As part of NES training, teachers are asked to ensure all kids are sitting in the front rows to maximize their engagement with their instructors and the content,” the statement said. “Students who need more instruction time on a given lesson get extra classroom time with their teacher in a smaller group and have access to teacher apprentices and learning coaches as necessary to support their learning.”

The HISD had the highest teacher turnover rate, with 600 leaving the this year, according to ABC station KTRK. That’s twice as many as the roughly 300 HISD teachers who left during the same timeframe last year.

HISD acknowledges that two-thirds of teachers who left this year were from NES schools, but according to KTRK, the model raises expectations and is not for everyone. Also, HISD said 55 of their school elected to opt in to NES, while others have adopted selected NES policies.

Among the latter is A-rated Barbara Bush Elementary, which has introduced a timed curriculum option used at NES schools. Teachers set a timer that allows students about four minutes to complete each session before moving on to the next one.

Henley Jackson, a fifth-grader with ADHD, finds the timed curriculum overwhelming.

“Once there’s a little bit of time left, I start panicking because I feel like I’m not going to finish in time,” Jackson said, adding that her grades are dropping.

Henley’s mother said she and other parents have voiced their concerns to the district, but they feel as if those concerns “are falling on deaf ears.”

Kristen Hall, the HISD chief academic officer, told ABC News that the primary focus of NES is enhancing classroom instruction, and also noted that HISD has raised salaries for NES teachers. Hall said their goal is simple: to improve student achievement in failing or near-failing schools.

Hall also said that while morale may be low for some teachers and parents, she doesn’t think that’s the case when she walks into classrooms, adding, “We’re out in the classrooms all of the time.”

“My message, if someone is experiencing something, is what we’re trying to say and what we continue to say as the thing we are here to do is stay committed to ensuring your student is receiving the best instruction and the best education that we can provide them,” Hall said.

Yet it’s not certain that such school takeovers accomplish what they set out to do, Josh Bleiberg, a researcher and assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh, told ABC News. In 2021, Bleiberg and Beth Schueler, from the University of Virginia, conducted a national study of schools that were taken over by states.

“Overall, we find no evidence that state takeover improves academic achievement,” the study determined, in part.

“What we find is that test scores in math and English language arts were about the same before the takeover and after the takeover,” Bleiberg told ABC News.

While not all parents oppose the changes that came with NES, frustrated parents and teachers have been very vocal about their concerns.

“There are barriers to just up and leave and not to mention people’s socioeconomic levels in life and where they live alone, family obligations, and just life in general,” Marcus Edwards, a concerned parent, told ABC News.

Protests against the state takeover began this year, which led the Houston Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union in Houston, to recently ratify a resolution calling for Superintendent Miles’s removal following a 98 percent vote of no confidence.

Officials state that their goal is to eventually return HISD to local control. However, the state plans to add as many as 40 more new schools to NES by next school year and expand it to just over half of HISD schools by 2025.

Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, wants to restore a democratically elected board.

“There’s a very diverse culture here,” Anderson said. “You cannot use a blanket, a cookie-cutter model for every child in this district.”

Yet state takeovers of school districts are happening more frequently, indicating that many other schools may be on the verge of significant changes, according to Bleiberg. He also suggests state officials would do well to listen to concerns.

“The pushback from community members, from teachers, from parents, those are valued stakeholders in any successful school turnaround effort,” Bleiberg said. “And if there isn’t that trust, it’s less likely will be a positive effect.”

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